6/24/95 Wendy Kaminer on Crime

AOL Transcript 6/24/95 Wendy Kaminer

Copyright 1995 America Online, Inc.

OnlineHost: Wendy Kaminer is a public policy fellow at Radcliffe College and a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly. A lawyer and social critic, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her most recent book, "It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture." On Friday, she presented an overview of criminal justice issues to a special plenary session of the ACLU's 75th Anniversary Biennial Conference.

OnlineHost: Kaminer is also the author of "I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement & Other Self-Help Fashions," "A Fearful Freedom: Women's Flight from Equality," and "Women Volunteering: The Pleasure, Pain & Politics of Unpaid Work."

OnlineHost: Kaminer's articles and reviews have appeared in publications including The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and Mirabella. Before embarking on her writing career, Kaminer practiced law, as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and the New York City Mayor's Office.

OnlineHost: Kaminer's appearance today marks the ACLU's third Center Stage "performance." She will be followed at 4 P.M. on Saturday, June 24, by noted gay activist Tom Stoddard, former executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. Please welcome Wendy Kaminer to the Odeon!

PhilCLU: Welcome all. Thanks for coming to the ACLU's 3d Center Stage Event. Our first question is about Wendy's new book.

Question: What is your new book, "It's All the Rage: Crime and Culture" about?

Wkaminer: My new book examines our notions of individual accountability and victimhood. It examines notions of accountability in the popular culture, focusing on the way they are played out in the criminal justice system. It is part an argument against the death penalty, a critique of the irrationalism of criminal justice debates, and it examines a range of particular criminal justice issues -- it looks at the federal crime bill, violence in the media, gun control, but its central focus is the double standard that you see when you look at standards of accountability that people apply to themselves in the recovery movement and the standards that apply to the vast majority of criminal defendants.

PhilCLU: We're talking with author, Wendy Kaminer.

Question: What is the largest challenge facing the feminist community today?

Wkaminer: It's difficult for me to single out the largest challenge. Welfare "reform" of course, is primary today; so are abortion rights. And, as usual there are deep divisions within the feminist movement that always need to be addressed.

Question: Is there an ultimate solution to drastically reduce crime in America, or is it hopeless?

Wkaminer: There are no ultimate solutions to anything, in my view. The desire for ultimate solutions is the problem. We will only reduce crime and violence incrementally, with incremental solutions. Looking for sweeping ultimate solutions, we end up only with symbolic solutions like the death penalty, which we are incapable of administering fairly. like three strikes you're out laws, which may actually decrease the felony conviction rate, because they increase court congestion. Looking for ultimate solutions, we leave ourselves open to demagoguery. There are some small scale solutions we can think about: We should, for example, do a better job of enforcing laws against gun ownership and use by juveniles. Police in general have done very little to try to control the black market in guns for kids. We should reform mandatory minimum drug laws, which fill our prisons with non-violent, low level drug offenders; we should encourage and even fund, (imagine that) community groups acting to prevent violence in their neighborhoods. We shouldn't scoff at midnight basketball; it works.

PhilCLU: We're talking about crime and feminism and many other topics with author Wendy Kaminer.

Question: What did you think of Clinton and Reno's immediate response after the Oklahoma City bombing stating that the death penalty would be sought? Political posturing?

Wkaminer: Yes. I think support for the death penalty generally entails a lot of political posturing. It's particularly irritating coming from Janet Reno because she presents herself as an opponent of the death penalty. Clinton sold out on the death penalty long ago; he is after all the man who killed to get elected. I think he's smart enough to know that the death penalty doesn't work and like Janet Reno, he likes to display a lot of ersatz moral agonizing about enforcing it, but enforce it he will, to remain in office.

Question: I'd be curious to know what, if any, good you see in the recovery movement.

Wkaminer: Millions of people have reads recovery books, some of which contain simple common sense advice about family life Some people learn from these books. The recovery movement has probably done some good raising consciousness about child abuse, though I often think that whatever good it's done has been wiped out by the harm its done by defining child abuse so broadly that it's nearly meaningless. Recovery experts define abuse as any form of inadequate nurturance, which means that being yelled at or simply ignored is the equivalent of being raped or battered. In the end, I think recovery trivialize the most serious instances of abuse.

PhilCLU: We're talking with author Wendy Kaminer. The next question is about the death penalty.

Question: If the Republicans (and Republicrats, like B. Clinton) succeed in gutting death penalty appeals, and we start executing a large number of people, like, say, the 4,000 on death row within the next 2 years, do you think the increased carnage will undermine support for the death penalty?

Wkaminer: No, I'm afraid. not, Executions are hardly even publicized anymore. This week, for example, the Times reported two executions in a few paragraphs buried in the middle of the national section (often reports of executions are buried in the metropolitan section). So, for the most part, executions happen in obscurity. If people did hear about executions, if they were publicized, even televised, I fear more would enjoy them than be repelled by them

Question: If we need to create incremental solutions, then what can we, the everyman, do?

Wkaminer: I'm better at criticism than social engineering, so I always have a hard time answering good practical questions like "what can the average person do?" Of course, there are obvious answers, like the average person can get involved in local politics, the average person can get involved in violence prevention programs in his or her own neighborhood, the average person can engage with local radio and TV talk shows on crime. I'm afraid, though, that's not a very good answer. I'm best at knowing what I can do personally, which is write and think about issues like these, point out problems, and hope that people like you can do a better job than I can of figuring out where to go next. I've always seen the formulation of public policy - and solutions to social problems -- as a collaborative effort. I've always felt that my part of the job was to analyze and criticize in the hope that other people might use my work to forge solutions.

PhilCLU: We're talking with author Wendy Kaminer. The next question is about a recent Supreme Court decision.

Question: What is your view of the Court's ruling on Affirmative Action?

Wkaminer: I think Linda Greenhouse got it right in her analysis in the Times. Basically, the Supreme Court's decision didn't matter all that much, because the President and Congress were going back on affirmative action anyway. I do have a concern though about the way in which the Court's decision, requiring the application of a strict standard of review to affirmative action programs, may end up by watering down strict scrutiny - because the Court's opinion made it clear, more or less, that strict scrutiny needn't be fatal. I hope this decision doesn't end up making the Court more deferential to discriminatory legislation.

PhilCLU: We're talking with ACLU guest Wendy Kaminer. The next question is about crime.

Question: Midnight basketball games ? Whatever happened to keep the kids at home after a certain hour instead of leaving them roam free?

Wkaminer: Some kids don't have parents to keep them home; some kids will be roaming free if the community doesn't provide programs for them. It's an unfortunate reality we have to deal with.

Question: How do we bring the reform issues you discuss into the arena of "mainstream" political debate in this country? The spectrum of discourse is so far right today!

Wkaminer: Politicians need to believe that there are voters on the left who will hold them accountable. So, the solution is a bit long term, more effective organizing, voter registration on the left. And better education of people in the middle. Liberals could surely do a better job of getting their message out on the airwaves. Why, after all, are radio talk show so conservative?

PhilCLU: Here's a question about the ACLU.

Question: Why does it always appear the ACLU always takes a view just to be controversial? Doesn't that make you part of a problem?

Wkaminer: Not everything that appears true is true. The ACLU is devoted to some very controversial principles -- like the principle that everyone who is arrested should enjoy the same constitutional rights, regardless of their alleged crime or their character. We don't take that position to irritate people; we take that position because we believe in it. We believe in it, in part, in a spirit of enlightened self-interest, because the rights of each one of us are co-extensive with the rights of everyone who is arrested and prosecuted in the criminal courts. If we all don't enjoy the same rights, then no one enjoys any rights at all; some of us merely enjoy privilege.

PhilCLU: We're talking with ACLU guest Wendy Kaminer, author of a new book on crime and culture. Question: Do you see more Americans ready to give up some civil liberties to gain a more stable society?

Wkaminer: Yes, But I'm not sure the number of Americans ready to cede their civil liberties has increased. The choice between liberty and order is classic. Think back to the red scares of the 1920s or to the years of McCarthyism. Fear of crime has been rising since the late l960s. In recent history you can trace intense fear of crime, and the exploitation of that fear by politicians to Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign; he ran on a law and order platform. In the past 5 years, increased fear of crime also reflects changes in the nature of violent crime. Violent crime by young juveniles is up, and violent juvenile crime is particularly chilling; we're not supposed to be afraid of our children. Gun violence is up as well and that makes people feel much more vulnerable. It will be interesting tho to see if increasing mistrust of government will undermine increasing demands for harsh government crackdowns on crime. I fear not. There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in people's thinking about crime control.

Question: In "I'm Dysfunctional.." you seem angry with academic postmodernists. If you value criticism as much as you claim, what is your problem with fellow social critics?

Wkaminer: Which social critics? Which academic postmodernists? In general, academic post-modernist don't practice much social criticism. Their subject is often academic theory about culture not culture itself. And their ideas are cloaked in impenetrable jargon that only other academics with graduates degrees can understand. I don't like people who use language to obscure , who use language to intimidate. A lot of intelligent lay readers when confronted with a piece of academic writing, assume they can't understand it because they're not smart or educated enough. They may not understand it because it's badly written and doesn't have all that much meaning to begin with.

PhilCLU: We're talking with Wendy Kaminer, noted feminist and author.

Question: Do you think men can be feminists?

Wkaminer: Sure.

Question: What's your opinion on the proposed chemical castration of rapists?

Wkaminer: I suppose if there were a way to ensure that chemical castration as an alternative to incarceration could be truly voluntary, I could support it -- though we don't usually allow convicted felons to choose their punishment. But it's hard for me to imagine that when confronted with prison, the choice to have yourself castrated ever could be voluntary. It seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me when it's coerced.

PhilCLU: We're talking with Wendy Kaminer and we have time for two more questions.

Question: Could Prof. Kaminer comment on C. MacKinnon's influence.

Wkaminer: I think Catherine MacKinnon is the anti-Christ. That's the short answer. What I dislike about her most is that she lies to people, particularly young people about what the First Amendment means; she uses her legal knowledge and her facility with language as a club -- you can't really argue with MacKinnon unless you have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the First Amendment, because she misrepresents it so badly. I've also always wondered at her political naivety. She believes deeply that our legal institutions are male dominated, oppressive to women, yet she's willing to give them more power than they already have to censor. What makes MacKinnon think that when the time comes to implement her censorship laws, she'll be the one with the power to do it?

PhilCLU: We've got time for one more question.

Question: It seems to me that the Entertainment Industry has more effect on the average person than education. Without impairing free speech, what do you see are changes that could be made in that industry that could help create a saner more sensitive culture?

Wkaminer: Whatever changes are made will have to come from within the industry itself -- in response from pressure from consumers. I don't blame the industry so much as I blame the audience. At least, there is a clear collaboration between producers and consumers. I'd like to see consumers take responsibility for their own preferences.

OnlineHost: Our thanks to Wendy Kaminer for joining us today. For a transcript of this event, please be sure to check back in about 24 hours. And be sure to stop back at 4pm ET when noted gay activist Tom Stoddard appears online. Thank you and good afternoon!

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